Preparing For A Smart Future

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Home > Articles > Preparing For A Smart Future

 Preparing For A Smart Future

Jo Owen | Today's Manager
June 1, 2018

Hoping that the education system delivers what employers need may be a long wait. We must take control of our destiny by preparing ourselves and our teams for the future.

What do the following have in common: Korean baseball fans, camel racing jockeys, British dairy hands, and Japanese waitresses?

Answer: they have all been replaced by robots. These are some of the more colourful illustrations of the way artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are transforming the world. A recent study by Oxford University estimates that 47 per cent of all jobs will be replaced by AI or robots in the next 20 years. That is a finding which would have been true at any point since the start of the industrial revolution 200 years ago: technology has been replacing labour consistently, but it has also been creating new jobs as well.

The difference this time is that the jobs at risk are not manual jobs; they are white collar jobs. Technology is now coming after your job. There is good reason for this. Much of what passes for business sense is no more than pattern recognition. Once you have seen the same movie several times, you know what to expect. This has driven the emergence of deep specialists. If you have a PR crisis, you will have no experience of how to deal with it, but there are plenty of specialists who deal with that sort of crisis every week and will know exactly what to do. If you have a legal problem, there will be legal specialists who have seen that problem many times and can help you. These specialists offer pattern recognition, at a very high cost.

If there is one thing which AI is very good at, it is pattern recognition. The more your job involves dealing with patterns, the more at risk it is. Patterns are everywhere. There is now software which can analyse songs and predict which will be hits and which will misses: the expertise is in the algorithm. The world of advertising would seem to be highly creative, but that is also subject to pattern recognition. My first task as brand manager for Daz (a detergent by Procter & Gamble) was to watch 50 years of Daz advertising. Each advertisement was scored by consumers. At the end of a long afternoon I could predict how well each new piece of advertising would score with consumers: I was picking up the patterns of failure and success, without even realising it.

All of this cuts to the heart of how you can prepare for your future and how a nation can build for its future. The challenge is only getting harder: AI is threatening thinking jobs and robots are threatening manual jobs. That does not seem to leave much room for humans.

To understand how we can prepare for the future, we have to peak into the future. There are two reasonably predictable trends: technology and globalisation. Each brings challenges and opportunities for leaders.

Technology is not only the great destroyer of jobs; it will also be the great creator of more and better jobs of the future. The chances are that routine work will still exist, but it will become a smaller part of the day. Instead, leaders will have to focus on what AI cannot do (yet):

  • Innovating;
  • Leading change;
  • Persuading and motivating people;
  • Dealing with crises and chaos; and
  • Managing politics.

Technology will make leadership more interesting and more challenging.

Globalisation will continue. In my research for Global Teams, I found that even micro businesses with fewer than 10 staff were going global: they had global customers, a global team, and global suppliers. It is the only way to stay competitive on price, skills, and innovation. Going global is not nice to have; it is a must-have. And if you are global, you have to be very good at:

  • Dealing with ambiguity;
  • Communicating to be understood in an era where we communicate more than ever but are understood as little as ever;
  • Balancing local and global needs; and
  • nfluencing people over whom you have no direct control and you may never see.

Globalisation, like technology, raises the performance bar for leaders. It makes leadership more interesting and rewarding, but fewer people are ready to jump these hurdles, which are higher than ever. The question is whether you, your firm, and your nation will win in this new world.

As you look at the list of skills and mindsets that technology and globalisation will demand, one thing becomes clear: our education systems fail comprehensively to prepare us for the future. Not only that, education may be preparing the next generation in precisely the wrong way. Focus on literacy and numeracy is understandable: they are the gateways to all knowledge. Until you pass those gateways, you can never learn. But the focus on teaching to test and rote learning means we are producing a next generation of humans who are merely substandard robots. They will have no future unless they can learn the skills which technology and globalisation will require in future. Smart means being different from computers, it does not mean being a second rate computer. The first nation to grasp this concept will win, but it requires a revolution in the education system. Vested interests which are comfortable with the old ways will not give in easily.

Eventually, all education systems have to change. In the past, education focussed on preparing rulers to rule. In Ancient Greece that meant learning an odd mix of rhetoric, maths, and wrestling; in the middle ages it involved studying the Bible, Latin, and jousting; in the 19th century public schools focussed on classics, sports, and “character” in the form of beatings, fagging, and other unsavoury practices. Now education has to focus on preparing everyone for their future lives, which makes it much more complicated: we do not know the future and different children have different needs. But already, education systems worldwide look like they are preparing children for the 20th century and not the 21st century.

What is the Point of Education?
We walked into the Education Minister’s office with a golden offer. We were so confident in our service that we would work for free: no initial investment and no risk to the government. The government would only have to pay if we delivered the results they wanted. It was an offer we knew they could not refuse. So we asked the Minister what results he wanted and how much he would pay for them.

There was meltdown on the other side of the table. The Minister and advisors started by saying: “well of course that means we have to deliver literacy and numeracy, or English and Maths… and of course we need Sciences… and we cannot ignore History or foreign languages… and it would be a shame to lose things like Art and Drama… and Sport is vital for their health… and citizenship… and life skills… and employability skills… and financial literacy… and…”. For 20 minutes they kept on adding to an implausibly long list of goals for schools to achieve.

We had, inadvertently, asked the Department for Education “what is the point of education?” Effectively, the answer was “we haven’t got a clue”.

At this point it is easy to laugh at venal politicians and incompetent civil servants. But now put yourself in their shoes. If you had to performance manage the education system, what specific goals would you measure and reward?

The skills challenge is made worse by most corporate training which also fails to give us what we need. Firms and executives are happy with training that focusses on explicit knowledge: ‘know-what’ skills such as finance, accounting, or strategy. But they are less comfortable with training in tacit knowledge: the ‘know-how’ skills of dealing with people. Going on such courses is seen as a sign of weakness by many executives. But tacit knowledge and skills are the key to the future.

All of this points to a looming skills crisis for individuals, leaders, firms, and nations. We are busy honing our 20th century skills to prepare for 21st century challenges. We are going into war, ready to charge the enemy tanks on horseback. The results will not be pretty.

As ever, where there is crisis there is opportunity. The first nation to grasp the education revolution will create a golden future for the next generation. But it requires radical change. Literacy and numeracy are simply gateways to real learning: they are the journey, not the destination. This may mean that people have to spend longer in education, or spend half the time in education and half in employment to build the skills they need. Perhaps firms will have to be more explicitly involved in education. As individuals, we need to be ready to go back into education to retrain and reskill ourselves. Whatever skills we have at age 25 are unlikely to help us much 30 or 40 years later.

As leaders, we cannot wait and hope that the education system will deliver what we need as employers. It may well be a very long wait. We have to take control of our destiny. We have to prepare ourselves and our teams for the future. Only if we build the right skills and experience can we expect to survive. And if others are not building the right skills and experience, we will not just survive; we will thrive. That is a prize well worth fighting for.


Mr Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and 14 other management books. He is a founder of the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, Teach First, and has started six other charities, a bank, and a business in Japan.


Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management

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